WHEN WHITE HOUSE press secretary Marlin Fitzwater was JTC asked to comment the other day on the call in Congress for an investigation into allegations that the 1980 Reagan-Bush campaign had made a deal with Iran to withhold release of American hostages until after the presidential election, he dismissed the notion flippantly.
"There's no need to investigate something that never happened," said Fitzwater. It was a response worthy of his predecessor, Ronald Ziegler, during the long Watergate nightmare of the Nixon presidency. Ziegler at first dismissed the Watergate break-in as "a third-rate burglary" and later was forced to declare that all previous White House denials of involvement were, in a memorable word, "inoperative."
This is not to say that the alleged secret deal of arms-for-hostages timed for after the election did take place, or is a scandal of Watergate proportions. But neither is it warranted for Fitzwater to declare so cavalierly that it never happened, considering the testimony gathered by former Carter national security staff Iranian specialist Gary Sick and others alleging that it did.
When a group of Democrats calls for a congressional investigation that could severely embarrass a Republican president, the inclination clearly is to dismiss the demand as pure partisanship. But in this case a prominent Republican, Sen. William Cohen of Maine, has said that the allegation is "something that ought not to just be hanging out there. It ought to be resolved."
Cohen says that if there is enough evidence to justify an inquiry, it should be conducted not by Congress but by a bipartisan commission similar to the one headed by the late Sen. John Tower into the Iran-contra affair when it first broke, chaired by some individual of unimpeachable fairness. Cohen suggests former Atty. Gen. Elliot Richardson, who quit rather than fire Watergate special investigator Archibald Cox at President Richard Nixon's order in the celebrated "Saturday Night Massacre" of November, 1973, or longtime Democratic insider Lloyd Cutler.
Cohen was a member of the Senate committee that investigated the Iran-contra affair, which had some of the same aspects of the current charges. They allege that the Reagan-Bush campaign promised to approve shipment of American arms to Iran by Israel if release of the 52 Americans held hostage was held up until after the American election of 1980.
Back in the 1980 campaign, it was no secret that William Casey, the Reagan-Bush campaign manager and later CIA director, feared an "October Surprise" from then-President Jimmy Carter that could swing the election against Reagan to him. Casey was so apprehensive that Carter might pull off release of the hostages that he set up a watch by former military men near U.S. bases. They kept an eye out for flights that might indicate a swap of materiel for the captive men. When Carter cut off campaigning the final weekend as a result of a report that the hostages might be released, the Reagan-Bush campaign was, according to Reagan press secretary Lyn Nofziger, "scared to death, because we didn't know how it would play." The White House obviously wants these latest allegations to go quietly. George Bush successfully stonewalled through the 1988 campaign on any knowledge of or involvement in any arms-for-hostages deal at any time, and politically he doesn't need the inquiries to start again, from any quarter, be it congressional or blue-ribbon, as Cohen suggests.
In early 1989 a disgruntled former Reagan White House aide, Barbara Honegger, published a book called "October Surprise" in which she also alleged an Iranian arms deal by the Reagan-Bush campaign in late 1980 to prevent the pre-election release of hostages, fearing it could give Carter a second White House term. Book and author were dismissed as bunk by the White House at the time.
When the 52 hostages were released only minutes after Reagan took the presidential oath on Jan. 20, 1981, there was much speculation that the timing was more than a coincidence, but the notion of hanky-panky seemed too preposterous. The resurfacing of the allegations now will be characterized by Republicans as an act of political desperation by a Democratic opposition in disarray. But if there is one thing that could turn the 1992 election into a donnybrook it would be any indication that Reagan and Bush won in 1980 by preventing the earlier release of those Americans. No wonder Fitzwater says flatly that "there's no need to investigate something that never happened."